Yoga can improve symptoms for people dealing with anxiety disorders

NEW YORK — For people dealing with anxiety, nervousness and feelings of worry are constant reminders that something is wrong. These feelings may be running especially high amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although mental health treatments are readily available, not everyone has access or wants to participate. A study finds those seeking a different approach should turn to yoga, at least in the short-term.

Researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine say yoga is actually more effective at treating anxiety disorders than standard stress management education. More than half of the study group who tried yoga for three months had a meaningful improvement in their symptoms. Although not as good as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), yoga produced significantly better results than normal therapies.

“Generalized anxiety disorder is a very common condition, yet many are not willing or able to access evidence-based treatments,” says lead study author Naomi M. Simon in a press release. “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”

Exercise for the mind

Researchers split 226 people with anxiety disorders into three groups, one participating in CBT, one in Kundalini yoga, and one in stress management education. For the patients using yoga, their treatment included physical postures, breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, yoga theory, meditation, and mindfulness practice. After 12 weekly sessions, study authors find 54 percent of the yoga group experienced a reduction in their levels of anxiety.

CBT, which researchers call the gold standard in talk therapy, was able to successfully treat 71 percent of that group. This treatment helps patients identify negative thinking and come up with better responses to the challenges they face.

Only 33 percent of stress management patients saw an improvement in their conditions. These educational approaches give patients lectures about the physiological and medical effects of stress. It also focuses on lifestyle behaviors which may cause anxiety, such as alcohol use and smoking.

Yoga benefits anxiety patients — but in the short-term

While yoga shows a definite improvement in treating anxiety compared to stress management, researchers caution these exercises have a limited effect. While CBT patients still reported better mental health after six months, yoga patients saw a decrease in its impact.

“Many people already seek complementary and alternative interventions, including yoga, to treat anxiety,” the professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health explains. “This study suggests that at least short-term there is significant value for people with generalized anxiety disorder to give yoga a try to see if it works for them. Yoga is well-tolerated, easily accessible, and has a number of health benefits.”

The study appears in JAMA Psychiatry.

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